Cannonball Read IV: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel, and it is a masterpiece. It is a poem, it is a cry of outrage, it is a lament. It is an authentic telling of growing up black in postwar America. The Bluest Eye focuses on a year in the lives of a group of children in the American Midwest (the author's origin), and uses their young eyes to penetrate the veil of hatred/self-hatred that has afflicted and been inflicted upon black people in this country, starting in their childhood and perpetuating itself from generation to generation. Morrison is writing for and to her people, but if white readers draw a lesson, so much the better.
Sisters Claudia and Frieda--clearly representing the voice of the author herself--bitterly relate the story of the dark-skinned 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who has a bitter shell of a mother whose identity lies entirely with the white family she serves and a burned-out drunk of a father who rapes and impregnates his daughter. Morrison switches to the third-person viewpoint to reveal the earlier tragedies that shaped Pecola's parents, so that the reader can comprehend the cycle of violence, desperation, loneliness, and self-loathing that is perpetuated against the innocent Pecola.
Pecola comes to live with Claudia and Frieda's family for a short while, and we see crystalized in their experience the ugly color wars that are fought among and between lighter- and darker-skinned members of their race, based on the blonde and blue-eyed American myth of what constitutes "beauty." Indeed, all the emotionally-ravaged Pecola yearns for are Hollywood blue eyes. When she loses her baby and then her mind, Pecola gets what she wishes for and the heartbreak comes full circle.
Author Morrison tells us Pecola's fate in the first pages of her book, but writes her novel to try to explain the "why." She brilliantly uses as her introduction and chapter headings excerpts from the elementary-school reader many American children at the time grew up with, the "Dick-and-Jane" primer which tells us that the only proper family is the happy white mother and father, the blonde and blue-eyed siblings, the dog, cat, car, house and picket fence. The contrast to real life in Morrison's experience-and that of her characters-could not be more stunning.
As I've found with all of Morrison's books, reading The Bluest Eye is not a "pleasant" experience. One comes away in tears and intense heartache for all the brown-eyed brown-skinned children who never got to see their beauty reflected in the eyes of those around them. It is a must-read.
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